At the start of students’ college careers, there are both good and bad unknowns. The good unknowns are the people they will meet, the different instructors, courses on subjects they have heard about but never studied, and experiences that expand their perspectives.
The bad unknowns include the problem that they do not know is brewing, the difficult relationship and killer assignment that is bound to come, how much their books will cost, how difficult it will be to pay tuition, room, and board, and whether they will have everything they need.
How their school’s curriculum works should not be one of those unknowns.
However, first year students sometimes arrive on campus and discover that their courses and schedules are not what they wanted. Someone made a schedule for them, and they ended up with courses they would not choose and the dreaded 8:00 am class. The student who wants to solve the problem by changing courses faces the question: What courses?
Ask that question, and you enter the maze that is an undergraduate curriculum today. It takes serious thought to get through it, and by the time you are done, you will have spent hours figuring out which courses to take and which to avoid.
Here’s how the system works and how Thales College, a new college in Raleigh, North Carolina, makes it work better for students. Thales College combines liberal arts and professional undergraduate curricula so that students develop the intellectual ability, meaningful knowledge, moral character, and professional excellence needed to thrive in life and work. The college’s organized course of study stands in sharp contrast to the mix of courses most colleges offer today.
When a student arrives on a typical college campus, they must plan to complete the college’s or university’s core curriculum or general education requirements. However these requirements are arranged, they represent that institution’s view of what an educated person should know. In a liberal arts college, they represent what the institution considers to be a liberal arts education. In most US institutions today, these curricula come in the form of survey courses that lack depth and elective courses that lack coherence.
If a college that students plan to attend uses general education requirements, they will find a few broad divisions, such as humanities, sciences, and social sciences—and will need to pick a few courses from each division. For example, well-respected Williams College makes three divisions within its general education curriculum—Languages & the Arts, Social Studies, and Science & Mathematics—and requires students to pick three courses from each division. Each division lists, on average, 23 different academic fields. If there are five possible courses in each field, then students would have over 300 course options to choose from in Williams’s nine course general education requirement.
This system looks good to many people because it offers quite literally a unique basic education, made up of whatever courses the student chooses. At graduation, each student’s set of general education courses differs from everyone else’s.
However, even though students have maximum freedom to choose subjects to study, something is lost in this approach. There is no set of texts and ideas that everyone has studied and can discuss. There is no presentation to everyone of foundational ideas as they developed through ancient, medieval, and modern periods. There is no help in discerning how these ideas could add up to a vision of life and how to live it.
A core curriculum solves some of these problems. An undergraduate core typically contains freshman and sophomore level survey courses in humanities fields and introductions to different social sciences, such as psychology and economics, and to the hard sciences. Students have fewer choices about which core courses they take, but they walk away familiar with texts and ideas that they can discuss, debate, and advocate for the rest of their lives.
A core humanities curriculum can explore how certain foundational ideas about humanity and society combine in a range of viable worldviews and how destructive ideologies arise when they eliminate some of these key ideas. A set of introductory courses to the sciences and social sciences teaches students a disciplined way of thinking about those subjects and can demonstrate the limitations as well as the power of the scientific method.
But there are problems even with undergraduate core curricula. They stop at the freshman and sophomore level. In reality, students need to continue thinking deeply about humanity and society as their intellectual abilities mature, as they prepare to graduate with the specialized knowledge of an academic major, and as they enter into the freedom and responsibilities of an adult.
Thales College’s integrated liberal arts curriculum fills these gaps in students’ intellectual development.
When we designed the liberal arts curriculum for Thales College, we did not ask what should go in the core and what should go in the major. We simply asked what would make a good liberal arts education to prepare students for life and work.
You could think of Thales College’s liberal arts curriculum as a house with a foundation, walls, and a roof. In the first three terms, our students improve their intellectual skills in math, writing, logic, and their humanistic understanding by studying basic concepts in philosophy, economics, and great literature. They also strengthen their self-understanding through humanities-based career discernment and mentoring.
In terms four through six, the “walls,” students bring their more developed intellectual skills and humanistic understanding to the study of ethics, economics, and science and to the interpretation of masters of ancient and medieval thought. During the final two terms, they orient their undergraduate learning toward living and performing well in today’s society by exploring masters of Renaissance and Modern thought, studying political philosophy, culture, leadership, and American history, and honing public speaking and debate skills.
An organized liberal arts curriculum also provides a better structure for professional studies. Take Thales College’s Entrepreneurial Business major as an example. In the first three terms, the Liberal Arts curriculum improves students’ skills in language, math, and logic and helps students relate humanistic learning to career discernment. While valuable on their own, these skills help students acquire accounting and finance skills, in addition to humanistic learning, which is essential to an entrepreneurial mindset and business management philosophy.
In the final two terms, students apply math and humanistic learning to data analytics, finance, product design, marketing, contract law and ethics. They also continue business law and ethics and undertake an entrepreneurial ventures course that brings together liberal arts and business learning.
Arranging the curriculum is far better than prescribing a core curriculum or general education requirements and having the students choose the courses and the order in which to take them. Decades after graduation, people remember the college courses that changed their lives. Those courses were undoubtedly arranged and taught by gifted professors, whose learning compelled their students to work hard during a semester’s worth of weeks. Some people are lucky enough to have taken a half-dozen or so such courses, which together planted the seeds of a truly hopeful and continually developing lifelong vision. Even better would be a curriculum’s worth of courses that help students deliberately build such a vision and that offer the flexibility to prepare for a variety of professional paths.
An organized curriculum with no electives looks restrictive, but at Thales College it offers the more important freedom to think deeply in an organized way about foundational ideas regarding humanity and society and how they relate to professional work and leadership.
Grattan Brown is a Roman Catholic theologian and the Academic Dean of Thales College, a new business and liberal arts college opening in Fall 2021 in Raleigh, NC. He has written and taught about Catholic moral theology and capitalism, democracy, and bioethics and has collaborated with professionals of religious and secular backgrounds in health-care, business, and criminal justice.